The fitness industry is one of the most rapidly growing industries in the whole world. Despite the plethora of financial issues many countries face nowadays, the fitness and dietary supplements industry is still growing and will continue to grow. It is 2016 and whey protein powder supplements still make up the bulk of the fitness industry’s sales, but pre-workouts are the new sheriff in town.
According to Forbes magazine, dietary supplements sales reach an all-time high in 2015 with sales generating 36.7 billion dollars in the U.S. alone! And that number is estimated to increase to $60 billion dollars by 2021. That is almost double the sales. These trends indicate a good thing and a bad thing. The good thing is that many people, especially younger folks are taking better care of themselves to reach an aesthetically pleasing physique and improve their health. The bad thing is that while more people aim to look good and improve their health, the end doesn’t justify the means in this case.
Too much dependency on nutritional supplements to achieve health and fitness goals could be considered as an addiction, and the problem is that in many cases you get more than you bargain for -not in a good way-.
Pre-workout supplements and energy drinks are the new rage! Pre-workout supplements are second most popular fitness related products after protein powder. Only muscle heads, bodybuilders and weekend warriors spent money on supplements including pre-workouts, however, with a healthier lifestyle going mainstream, pre-workouts are now used by everyone who trains; men, women, boys, girl, CrossFit trainees, bodybuilders, fitness models…etc.
So, what are pre-workouts and are they as good AND SAFE as people claim? Hmm…
What are pre-workouts?
Pre-workouts are dietary supplements that are formulated to increase fitness enthusiasts’ energy levels and squeeze a bit more effort out of their bodies. While pre-workouts do in fact boost energy levels, supplement companies take it a bit further by often marketing their pre-workouts as miracle drugs that will; 1) boost energy levels. 2) accelerate metabolism for “rapid fat loss”. 3) build muscle mass. 4) boost endurance. 5) give you a muscle-tearing pump.
While those claims sound fancy on paper and appealing to almost all people who work out, I am here to burst your bubble and tell you that some claims are just not true. Many of those claims are designed (yes, designed) to have you buy supplements, period. There are two types of pre-workout supplements; stimulant based and non-stimulant based. The more mainstream pre-workouts are stimulant based since those are what give you energy.
So, what do pre-workouts really do?
Stimulant based pre-workouts WILL boost your energy levels due to having one or more ingredients that will stimulate your nervous system and boost mental focus. While caffeine is the most popular stimulant in the world, supplement companies have witnessed massive innovation throughout the past decade by discovering and formulating new stimulants that put caffeine to shame!
So, what should I expect from my pre-workout?
- Significant increase in energy levels.
- More mental focus (depends on ingredients).
- Better pumps and blood flow (also depends on ingredients profile).
- Faster reactions.
- Improved performance due to increased energy level, more blood flow and better mental focus.
- Delayed fatigue.
- More endurance.
- Slight increase in strength.
That’s it! In regards to the supplement companies’ claims of building muscle mass, increasing metabolism and speeding up fat loss, it’s all BS! Let’s see why.
Effect on muscle mass and fat loss
In a clinical study, two groups of subjects were put on a strength training regimen for six-weeks, however, the researchers had one group use a pre-workout while the others didn’t. The results were not shocking. The group who used pre-workouts reported better levels of energy, less fatigue, more endurance and better focus while the other group who were put on a placebo did not. Guess what? No significant differences in body composition between the groups were observed!
Yes, pre-workouts may boost your focus, make you squeeze out a rep or two more and enhance neuromuscular abilities due to stimulation of the central nervous system, but building muscle mass and losing fat are two complex processes that involve many more physiological aspects than just endurance and energy levels.
Any differences recorded or observed in muscle mass or fat loss could simply be attributed to more user dedication since the user feels like he must train harder to reap the product’s benefits (psychological factor), better performance overall, or intelligent diet and training regiments.
The improved markers of training MAY contribute to a slight change in body composition, but there’s no way to know for sure whether the changes could be attributed to ingredients in pre-workouts. But will the ingredients in pre-workouts directly stimulate muscle growth and fat loss? No. This study also observed the same improved markers of training while indicating no significant differences in body composition.
Effect on metabolism
A common myth is that if you are sweating, you must be burning fat. No, just NO! If you are sweating, your body’s temperature is increasing and thus excreting some water through your skin, that’s it. Anyway, since pre-workouts are mainly formulated around stimulants, it would make sense that they can accelerate your metabolism. Caffeine and stimulants in general can rev up your metabolism, BUT the effect is insignificant.
Stimulants stimulate the central nervous system and lead to secretion of epinephrine (adrenaline) which contributes to metabolism and lipolysis (fat loss) but once again, the effect is very small to notice any noticeable change in body composition. In fact, the popular ephedrine caffeine aspirin stack (also known as the ECA stack which includes 3 powerful ingredients) was indicated to boost metabolism by approximately 3-5%, which is not a bad number considering your resting metabolic rate.
So, if you need 2500 calories to maintain your weight and you start taking an ECA stack, you would burn about 75-125 more calories without doing any extra activities. However, any of those ingredients alone will not boost your metabolism by any significant degree. Point is, don’t count on pre-workouts to boost your metabolism by much, if any.
Effect on strength and endurance
If you read the top two paragraphs you will see that the studies I linked to did in fact notice an improvement in strength and endurance in people who used pre-workouts. Stimulants can enhance neuromuscular abilities and thus strength. Moreover, most pre-workouts contain creatine, which is the most studied supplement in existence. Creatine has been proved to enhance muscular endurance, increase lean body mass and increase strength. Thus, in this aspect, pre-workouts do deliver as long they contain stimulants and creatine.
What about non-stimulant based pre-workouts?
Non-stimulant based pre-workout are simply pre-workouts that are formulated to increase blood flow to muscles and thus pumps without having to deal with stimulants. Not everyone takes pre-workouts for energy, some like to take them merely to get a better pump (who doesn’t like a nice muscle-tearing pump?). Those pre-workouts are often formulated around; creatine, nitrates, agmatine sulfate, citrulline malate and arginine.
Those ingredients have been shown to boost nitric oxide levels in humans which improves blood circulation and flow. So, expect a nice pump, better endurance and strength which can both be attributed to creatine, but no improvement in energy levels. Non-stimulant based pre-workouts or nitric oxide supplements will not have any effect on performance or body composition, period.
The ugly side of pre-workouts
Just like most things in life, everything comes at a price, including pre-workouts. Stimulant based pre-workouts may boost athletic performance, increase energy levels and boost mental focus but they have a few cons and some non-lethal side effects. For most healthy adults, pre-workouts will not cause any medical issues, given that they are CLEAN products that only contain what the label states.
What’s in your pre-workout?
Since the dietary supplements industry is unregulated by the FDA, the biggest problem with dietary supplements in general is how they are manufactured and what ingredients do supplement companies really put in their products. During food processing and manufacturing stages, cross-contamination could occur.
Cross-contamination simply refers to toxic or unwanted ingredients/particles going into the manufactured product. For instance, you will often see that supplement companies state their products were manufactured in facilities that produce peanuts, soy and dairy. Why do they do that? Simple, to avoid any potential lawsuits by people who are allergic to any of those ingredients.
During the manufacturing process of their product, soy, peanuts or dairy MAY have made their way into the product and if you are allergic to any of those ingredients, you will suffer some consequences. Same applies to other toxins and foreign substances, you just never know if something made its way into your pre-workout. Also, the supplement industry is very shady (trust me) and thus shady practices such as product spiking with illegal substances are often involved.
For instance; a rising small company could spike their “cutting edge” pre-workouts with amphetamines to make them very powerful and thus gain attention and popularity. After they gain some attention and make some sales, they will often reformulate their product to remove the amphetamines and thus make the product more legal. They may get caught and suffer some serious legal consequences, but they usually don’t. A prime example would be DMAA based pre-workouts.
Two years ago, DMAA (a powerful stimulant) was banned from all dietary supplements, however, supplements companies continued to spike their products with it due to its strong physical and mental enhancing effects and not list it on the label as part of the ingredients formula.
This is not to say that aren’t good reputable companies out there, there are. However, such practices are more common than the public knows. Anyway, besides this critical point, pre-workouts can cause issues in the following regards;
Pre-workouts that have stimulants can cause diarrhea and/or constipation due to the stimulants’ vasoconstrictive effects. Stimulants directly stimulate the central nervous system which in return causes secretion of epinephrine (adrenaline) and that combination puts you in survival mode. When your body is in survival mode, it could care less about passing stools, it just cares about survival and thus many physiological reactions occur accordingly.
When this happens, your body restricts blood flow to your gastrointestinal tract which can lead to diarrhea and constipation.
As I mentioned in the last point, stimulants put your body in survival mode to allow you to act as if you were under imminent danger. As part of that process, the brain sends a signal to the pituitary gland and from there to the adrenal glands to produce cortisol and adrenaline.
Over time, the more often you stimulate yourself by taking pre-workouts, the harder your adrenal glands work to produce those hormones which eventually causes lethargy and dependence.
I mentioned before that I used to work at a popular and well-respected supplement store in NYC, and one of the main trends I noticed is that most people who try pre-workouts usually come back for more! Stimulants are addictive. Stimulants are usually used to get an extra kick, but then users experience a “low” shortly after which makes them feel like they won’t be able to perform without taking a pre-workout.
Over time, users become dependent on using pre-workouts to train, which is counterproductive and not very healthy. Another problem with using pre-workouts regularly is that your body’s tolerance increases which makes you more resistant to stimulants effects. As a result, users will often increase their dosage to compensate for the lack of stimulation, much like a drug addict.
Eventually this creates a vicious cycle where using pre-workouts becomes a ritual and people end up using pre-workouts for months or even years consecutively. This prolonged usage of pre-workouts can cause some serious problems such as adrenal fatigue and cortisol imbalance. If you’ve been using pre-workouts for some time, don’t complain of low energy levels and fogginess.
Pre-workouts are not the cheapest supplements out there. The average price of pre-workouts is between $35-$50 for a 30-40 servings container. Due to the addictive properties of pre-workouts, the costs eventually add up faster than you realize and before you know it, you’re spending between 400 and 600 dollars on an unnecessary supplement.
Effectiveness / Unstudied crap
Due to the shady practices supplement companies do, it is very common for companies to add a bunch of ingredients in their pre-workouts that have not been studies or proven to work in humans. Many companies will jump on ingredients that have been proven to work in animals or mice and promote them as the next big thing, but I have some flash news; you are not a mouse! Just because something works in animals, doesn’t mean it’ll work on you.
Additionally, those ingredients have usually not been researched for safety or hepatoxicity, which adds to the problem. Many companies will go as far as funding private clinical studies to prove an ingredient works, and as you can imagine, those ingredients only work in those sponsored trials merely because the results have been altered in favor of the company’s interests.
Proprietary blends must be one of my major pet peeves. If a company went through real studies and put genuine effort into discovering a real breakthrough, only then I would understand why they would probably want to protect their formula, however, for most of the companies that hide they pre-workout formulas behind proprietary blends, we know you just want to hide your unethical activities.
Most pre-workouts on the market are composed of the same ingredients, what could you possibly want to hide from your competitor? Give me a break. I know the real reason you use proprietary blends, and that is to hide that one little ingredient in the formula that you don’t want to list on the product’s label. -insert eye emoji here-
During my time at the popular supplements shop, many customers would come to me and complain of irregular sleep patterns. I usually proceeded with asking some questions to pinpoint what the root cause was and to investigate whether they were taking pre-workouts that could be interfering with their sleep. Unfortunately, the real reason why most customers couldn’t sleep was because they were stupid enough to take pre-workouts late in the afternoon.
Look, most stimulants have at least a half-life of 6 hours, meaning that if you take 100 milligrams of caffeine at 4 in the afternoon, by 10 o’clock you will still have about 50 milligrams in your system stimulating the crap out of you. In other words, that’s why you can’t sleep you moron. Stimulants can disrupt sleep patterns due to stimulation of CNS and increased heart rate.
Since stimulants stimulate the central nervous system, have vasoconstrictive characteristics, and cause secretion of adrenaline and cortisol, it makes sense that pre-workouts increase your heart rate and blood pressure. Moderate stimulant usage is fine, don’t worry, however, the problem escalates with prolonged abuse of such products. People with hypertension are better off staying away from pre-workouts.
Should I Take a Pre-workout?
If you still cannot make up your mind whether you want to take pre-workouts or not, simply ask yourself if you REALLY need one. If you want to buy a pre-workout and use it infrequently whenever you are having one of those days, that’s fine. If you have an addictive personality naturally, I’d steer you away from pre-workouts. If you have any pre-existing medical conditions that pre-workouts can worsen, stay away. If you want to use pre-workouts for better performance, use them, but don’t expect much in terms of favorable changes in body composition.
Just use caffeine
Instead of wasting tons of money on pre-workouts, you can always just enjoy a cup of coffee or tea to get an average dose of 100-200 milligrams of caffeine. If you are sensitive to stimulants, 100-150 milligrams should perfectly boost your energy levels and improve your athletic performance without any side effects. Caffeine is cheap, effective and you get exactly what you are paying for without the potential unnecessary contaminants that come with many pre-workouts.
The Final Verdict
Pre-workouts are effective and can be used safely with moderate usage. For most people, pre-workouts are safe and will yield no health problems, however, due to their increasing demand and thus prices, it would probably be wiser to stay away from them and save your money. If you must use some type of stimulants, use caffeine in moderation.
This article doesn’t aim to demonize pre-workouts, but it simply aims to fully educate existing and potential pre-workout users. Just weigh out the pros and cons and make your decision based on your own personal circumstances and goals. Pre-workouts will boost your strength levels, endurance, give you better pump and enhance mental focus, but they won’t help you build muscle mass, lose fat faster or accelerate your metabolism.
Don’t abuse pre-workouts, just use them in moderation and you will be fine.
If you know someone who is addicted to pre-workouts or thinking about taking some, share this article with them. As usual, your comments and suggestions are always welcome. So, make sure you drop them in the comments section 😉 Stay stimmed!
The next installment of this chapter will discuss another popular class of dietary supplements: fat burners! Do they work? If so, which ones? How should you use them? These are all questions that will be answered in the next articles.
Fat burners: a comprehensive guide
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